It all started with a trek to Mt. Everest in 2000, an investment in a young man’s education, and his “Pay it Forward” dream of a primary school in remote Khari, Nepal. Now, hundreds of educated children later, there is GCE.
The Route Revision
One idea and one obstacle changed my life. Forever.
The idea was mine: “Let’s start from Jiri.”
Jiri is a small village in Nepal, a 7-8 day hike from the Lukla airport, the starting point for most trekkers bound for Everest Base Camp. Jiri to Lukla is a week of hard straight up and straight down hiking, but amazingly beautiful and not the crowded circus encountered after the airport. I penciled out an itinerary that came up with a 24-day trek, turned to my (now ex-) wife, and said, “Let’s start from Jiri.”
The obstacle was hers: “I am not hauling a backpack for 24-days.”
I knew by the definitive way she spoke it was no use, but I tried: “But you only need to pack a toothbrush, one change of clothes, a sleeping bag…””I am not hauling a backpack for 24-days.” To overcome this obstacle, we hired a porter from a trekking agency.
I was expecting a grizzled Sherpa with coffee-can calves and altitude-hardened skin. We got Tanka: a small, 22-year old, clean-cut university student earning his tuition hauling tourists’ overstuffed bags up the mountain. “Really? This little guy?”
Tanka was more than up to the task, and even brought along his textbooks so he could study since he was missing classes for the trek. I think his textbooks weighed more than our stuff.
For 24 days we traveled together. You get to know someone pretty well when you travel with them, and on days you quickly gain the maximum 300 meters in altitude, there’s a lot of acclimatization time to talk, solve the world’s problems, and ponder the quirks of the English language (“I don’t know why ‘telephone’ is not spelled with an ‘F'”). Over 24 days, Tanka and I connected.
The trek to Everest Base Camp was magical and life-enriching, but not that’s what this story is about. This story starts a year later in September 2001. I had just taken a contract job in New York City when Tanka emailed, “I am working a trek with two Americans who are hiking up from Jiri leaving on the same day you did with almost the same route. Funny, huh?”
No. Not funny. Here was this intelligent, resourceful, determined young man squandering away his university time as a mule. I told him as much. I already knew that his tuition, books, room & board were about US $100 a month – pocket change in New York City. I made him an offer: cancel this trip, agree to never haul another bag, and I would sponsor his last 2.5 years of university.
He said “No.” He didn’t want to be in debt, to have to pay me back. I clarified, “You don’t pay me back, you pay it forward. When you’re older and established, do something big for someone else.” He agreed.
Fast-forward four years. Now a university graduate, Tanka had his “pay-it-forward” idea: he wanted to build a primary school in his village. He was the only one of seven siblings allowed to make the long hike to the nearest school. On our Everest trek, Tanka and I often discussed that education is the key to a better Nepal, a better world. “We will build it,” he said, “but we need money for materials. Can you help?”
The budget was millions of Nepali Rupees but translated to only about US $14,000. I did my homework and found that yeah, in Nepal you can build a 7-room school for $14,000. I sent a letter to everyone I knew asking them, “Instead of spending money on a night out this weekend, will you send me a check?” They did. Tanka built his school: The Devisthan Primary School in Khari, Nepal opened in January 2006 with 125 smiling K-5 students.
I first returned to Nepal in 2007 and was amazed at the impact this little school was having on not only the children but the whole community. I also learned something important: little kids grow up! What were the Grade 6 kids going to do? Tanka and I decided that they would go to school.
Partnering with the community, The Baladevi School was built and opened in January 2009. Intended as a secondary school, so many parents brought their K-5 students – who had no other school to attend – that the local School Management Committee decided they could not turn them away and quickly revised the plan. Today, Baladevi is a K-10 school (adding one grade a year) with 351 students, most of whom would otherwise have no access to education.
You want life changing? Go live in a rural Nepali village for a month as I did in September 2010 and jump completely off the grid: no electricity, no running water, eat what you grow, no contact outside the village, and certainly no internet. It’s like stepping back in time 300 years. It was challenging, insightful, and rewarding – a time full of thought and self-discovery.
Six days a week I taught English to children who previously had no school to attend, and their enthusiasm to learn astounded me. The children grasped what an education could do for them. Fourth graders often had more knowledge in the basics of mathematics, social studies, grammar – and certainly English – than their parents. And those parents beamed with pride.
These schools were changing lives in a powerful way, and I discovered within myself a passion to keep it going. Thus, I founded The Global Community For Education and made this grassroots effort “official.” With support from both loyal and new donors, we’re continuing to help make this world just a little bit better place – one school at a time.
GCE’s slogan is “Building Schools. Changing Lives.” I find it ironic that the slogan is directed at the children, yet my life has been immensely enhanced by my experiences. So keep your eyes, mind, and heart open: one simple idea or one unexpected obstacle may forever change your life.